An inspired Wales display was enough to end Ireland’s unbeaten run after a breathtaking 23-16 win in Cardiff. A near perfect kicking performance by the ever reliable Leigh Halfpenny and a second half try by Scott Williams was enough for the Wales win.
Wales were brave throughout and did enough to hang on for the win and spoil the Irish party. Ireland’s captain Paul O’Connell who was celebrating his 100th cap could not motivate his team to victory as a gritty Wales performance puts them back in the mix to win the Six Nations crown.
Ireland struggled to get going despite a second half rally and both teams were made to put in some brutal, hard hitting tackles. Despite losing the opener to England, Wales are now firmly in the race to win the Six Nations and the exuberant Welsh crowd were electrifying throughout.
A furious start from the hosts was rewarded as Leigh Halfpenny opened the scoring within two minutes with a comfortable penalty in front of the posts.
Wales’ early pressure led to superb kicking by Dan Biggar and Halfpenny that gave the Welsh a large gain of territory. After some nifty ball work, Jonathan Davies picked a gap in the resilient Irish defence that eventually led to another Halfpenny penalty on the 7th minute mark.
The Irish soon found themselves 9-0 down in as many minutes as the ever perfect Halfpenny slotted a penalty from the halfway line.
Ireland struggled to cope with Wales’ supreme kicking display and referee Wayne Barnes was forced to warn Irish captain, Paul O’Connell and his players for a series of early penalties. Samson Lee was stretchered off with a nasty looking leg injury which required several minutes of medical attention. Halfpenny, unfazed by the delay stepped up with the consequent penalty and made it four from four within thirteen minutes.
Ireland who entered the game having won their last ten matches didn’t have an answer to Wales’ tenacity until George North was caught not rolling away and Ireland’s fly half, Jonathan Sexton, who is usually reliable with the boot shot his penalty agonisingly wide. Making his 50th cap, Sexton was given another chance seconds later and kicked from a difficult position to make it a 9 point game.
Ireland rallied and soon found themselves forcing Wales into making mistakes, until a wayward lineout pass from veteran hooker, Rory Best meant Wales could clear their lines and take a much needed rest.
Wales’ game plan was reminiscent of the Irish as Biggar and Halfpenny continued to kick high, allowing their backs to chase and put Ireland under pressure.
Sam Warburton who was making his 34th appearance as captain was sin binned by referee Barnes in the 27th minute for not rolling away, much to the anger of the Wales fans who voiced a chorus of boos. Sexton stepped up with the penalty and halved the deficit.
Fourteen man Wales then increased their lead as fly half Dan Biggar slotted an inch perfect drop goal in the 34th minute.
From the resulting kick off, Ireland found holes in the Wales defence and after another incident of a Welsh player not rolling away, Sexton kicked in front of the posts to pull the Irish within six points at half time.
Wales made another prop change as the experienced Gethin Jenkins was replaced by debutant Rob Evans through injury. Both teams set up a solid, competitive scrum as the second half got off to a much more serene start compared to the first.
A sloppy Rhys Webb box kick gave Ireland possession inside the Welsh half. Ireland had to remain patient and they made it inside Wales’ five metre line, but the brave and resilient Welsh defence forced the Irish further back and after thirty three brutal phases Wales tired and gave away a penalty that Ireland booted into the corner.
Ireland found themselves inside the five metre line again, but once more, Wales battled hard and the Irish could not penetrate. In what was an enduring 7 minutes, the Welsh remained solid and won a penalty which the crowd applauded with a relieving roar.
A frenetic fifteen minutes of rugby continued and a twisting breakthrough by centre Jonathan Davies resulted in Wales coming within metres of the Irish try line. In the 61st minute, Wales finally scored the first try of the game, as Scott Williams’ faked a pass and picked a gap in the Irish defence. Halfpenny was uncharacteristically wide with the conversion as Wales pulled 11 points clear of Ireland.
Ireland attempted an immediate response and a quick taken penalty by replacement scrum half Eoin Reddan almost pulled them back, but a knock on by Cian Healy, who was also making his 50th cap, gave Wales another much needed breather.
In the 69th minute, Ireland were awarded a penalty try after a gutsy drive. Sexton converted with ease in front of the posts to pull the Irish within four points and set up a tense last 10 minutes.
After smart Irish possession, Wales were gifted a penalty in Ireland’s territory and Halfpenny confidently stepped as he so frequently does up to put Wales 7 points clear with just 5 minutes remaining.
With two minutes remaining Wales centre Davies was given a yellow card that gave the Irish a final chance to score a converted try which would be enough to make it a tie.
A tense last gasp maul by Ireland came to nothing as Wales just did enough to hang on for the win, in what was a very exciting game of rugby, described by Welsh legend as “the best game of the Six Nations so far”.
The result means that Wales can still win the Six Nations crown despite questions being asked into their playing style after a disappointing autumn series. Wales will now look to finish off strongly against Italy in a weeks’ time.
MOTM – Sam Warburton
Wales starting XV: Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, Liam Williams, Dan Biggar, Rhys Webb; Gethin Jenkins, Scott Baldwin, Samson Lee, Luke Charteris, Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Lydiate, Sam Warburton (captain), Toby Faletau.
Replacements: Richard Hibbard, Rob Evans, Aaron Jarvis, Jake Ball, Justin Tipuric, Mike Phillips, Rhys Priestland, Scott Williams.
Ireland starting XV: Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw, Simon Zebo, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Jack McGrath, Rory Best, Mike Ross, Devin Toner, Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements: Sean Cronin, Cian Healy, Martin Moore, Iain Henderson, Jordi Murphy, Eoin Reddan, Ian Madigan, Felix Jones.